Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri would have been familiar with incising designs on wooden implements including spearthrowers and sacred objects, making spears, boomerangs, and dishes mainly with introduced metal tools , the use of ocher and vegetable fiber in ritual body decoration, the manufacture of ephemeral objects out of local materials for ceremonies, and the making of sand drawings as part of storytelling; and he would have seen rock paintings in caves.
An article in the arts section of the New York Times presented a photo of an imposing man, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, in front of his paintings, which surprised me, bewildered me, and prompted me to bicycle downtown on a warm summer day to investigate. Later, I was struck by a single photo of an Indigenous Australian painting on the Internet. Then, as each click led me further into the field, I became enchanted.
I was face to face with an art I had never seen before. I started building a small library on the subject and found the story of Indigenous Australian art compelling. LN How did your initial interest develop into a more concerted effort to establish a collection? Still, we have assembled about forty paintings by Indigenous Australian painters in a careful effort that seems to have some coherency. It has been a stirring exercise to discover and recognize what our specific interests are in this field.
SM I realized that the early Indigenous Australian paintings, from the s onward, have been splendidly collected and catalogued by insightful collectors and museums. My interest, piqued by these complex early paintings, made me look at the evolution of the work, and I focused on works made after I was also struck by the coincidental relevance of these paintings to other contemporary art. Most of the paintings we own are Western Desert works on canvas.
They come from the terrific Papunya Tula art center in Central Australia. Dedicated art centers dotted throughout the region serve the Indigenous Australian community, protecting the artists, cataloguing works, and so on.
These are vital for the authentication and provenance of works. LN Do you have a wish list? LN And with regard to Indigenous Australian art? LN How doe s c ontempora r y I nd igenous Aust ra l ia n ar t relate to ot her moder n a nd. SM Desert art is isolated. I gathered from my reading that it sprang from thousands of years of tradition, but was disconnected from and uninfluenced by the outside world. They never participate in the irony that suffuses so much contemporary art. As a recent but impassioned enthusiast, what do you feel might the place be for contemporary indigenous Australian art in the broader context of contemporary international art?
Wising up the Marks
SM I once thought I knew the perfect art show. One would simply select the best pictures from the canon, and everything would be wonderful. New discoveries and probing scholarship have unearthed artists who worked under duress and hardship, with little or no public recognition, at an equivalent artistic level to their more famous counterparts.
These relatively unknown artists now stand tall among the canonized giants of the art world, and the shift in focus has been quietly revelatory. I believe that Indigenous Australian paintings will eventually hang together with all the great modern and contemporary artists. DD You were born in Torrington, Connecticut, right? NJ Yes, in November of In we moved to Westfield, Massachusetts. My father worked in a needle factory and they transferred him.
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He worked at the factory for, I think, thirty-eight years. I grew up across the road from a chicken farm, which to me was the most interesting place in the world. NJ Yes, I was raised country. I worked on farms throughout my formative years. DD W hen you decided t hat you wanted to go to art school, was it tolerated in that rural environment?
NJ Oh yes. I graduated in At that time you either went to college or you went to the Vietnam jungle. NJ Well, his parents lived just a few doors away from me. After that, he went to the California College of the Arts and Crafts, in Oakland, and studied with Peter Voulkos, because he was doing ceramics at the time.
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I knew his art because his next-door neighbor, Jim. Drummond, who became a close friend of mine, had a lot of his paintings.
I got to see these works in in the summer of DD What was your first response? I was open-minded, you know. DD His paintings at that time were highly gestural? NJ Yes, he was essentially making action paintings at the time. He eventually moved toward more formalized, hard-edged paintings, and again, his hard-edged work was the first of that technique I ever encountered.
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He never got to New York because he had a teaching position and that was considered very elite and secure. DD At a certain point you decided that you wanted to relocate to New York. Was that decision motivated by the situation in Vietnam? I loved making art, but the rest of school was ho-hum.
Writers and Editors
In , with the death of [John F. The whole thing was totally fabricated and scary. The Vietnamese had done nothing to us. We hated Hitler, but what, were we going to hate Ho Chi Minh? Just keep dragging it out. They love that. I showed up at Mass Art and everybody else had a portfolio and I walked in with just as much as I could carry. Egleston was right: they all gathered around and sure enough, I got into Mass Art.
DD A relief.
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He gave me my first rejection. Everybody in Boston rejected me. DD But in , you got yourself to New York. The scene proved to be a melting pot of any number of possibilities for you. What I find really interesting is the sculptural impulse you seized on so quickly. One could say that that interest in light really begins in a sculptural form. What, at that point, did sculpture mean to you? I was a whittler when I was small, and I made bows and arrows and all.
I was always like that, building stuff, like my father. DD So when you got to New York, you initially sculpted, but then you turned your energies to painting. Eventually you realized that paintings needed frames, and then you were back in the sculpture business, right?
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